We heard anchors use flummoxed words decry "lawlessness" in voice over as images of mostly African American teenagers plunder buildings, throw objects, smash cars rotated ad infinitum on our screens searing in the message that Black teens are unruly beasts incapable of work, abstinence or self-control. Then like an invading alien force the doors of the mother ships opened and the "on the street" reporters were dispatched to give their lopsided moralistic view points; explaining to those of us watching at home that the problem in the inner city was bad parenting, government free stuff and uppity civil rights leaders. The rogues gallery was all there, from FOX News's Grand Dame of Yellow Journalism, Geraldo Rivera, to CNN's sycophant of White Supremacy Don Lemon. Presiding over this shit show was Jeff Zucker's tarnished dowager, Wolf Blitzer, enforted in the crumbling capital of fact-free news, the CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. They blitzed the streets with as much bring-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap rhetoric as possible. Chiding the Black community on its behavior as if Baltimore got that way overnight. Once the video of Toya Gragham dispensing Black Mama Justice went viral I knew all talk of the root cause of the unrest in Baltimore would evaporate only to be replaced with bullshit and conjecture.
Watching the coverage kept making me thinking of the novel "The Exorcist". When I was in the 11th grade I read the book "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty. At that time I had not seen the movie and wanted to know what all the hype was about. Not only was it a great read; it contained one of the most powerful paragraphs ever written. A passage that I actually had engraved on a plaque to keep it on my desk to remind me there is always a reason to look deeper. It is the first paragraph of Chapter 1: The Beginning.
"Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men's eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge."
And there it was.
America was looking at the horror of a burning Baltimore without connecting it to the beginning. Those roots of despair were being ignored. Those exploding suns of poverty, racism, police brutality, mass incarceration never registered on America's eyes because she was willfully blind. Baltimore didn't collapse because Black people were lazy, Baltimore was engineered to be that way. With a fuse as long as the one in an old "Mission Impossible" opening Baltimore had been smoldering for decades.
Police violence in nothing new to African Americans. Whereas Jim Crow laws, the KKK and hordes of white people could lynch at will across the South, the police became white supremacy's muscle in the North and West. From Boston to Milwaukee to Oakland cops have always brutalized Black people living in cities. The police force has increasingly been used to keep America's Black poor hidden from the pristine sight of the white suburbs. Like the dirty children of Ignorance and Want under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present. An American cornucopia that many will never eat from.
The Watts Rebellion of 1965 occurred when angry residents of the Los Angeles community heard that cops had beaten up an African American mother and her two sons after a traffic stop. Twenty-five years later Miami went up in flames when a police officer fatally shot a black man causing his motorcycle to crash killing his passenger, another young Black man. Now, almost like clockwork we have another city burning because a young Black man died at the hands of the police. Yet bad parenting and the dead victim's own culpability seem to always be the culprit instead of America facing the truth: police need to stop killing Black people.
I knew things were gonna get bad when Nancy Reagan first appeared as the face of the "War on Drugs". Clad in James Galanos, as fabulous as she was, a rich white woman, the wife of a president, speaking to inner city youth could only mean one thing: TROUBLE. And that's what we got. The War on Drugs has been a mother fucker to poor Black people. Starting with Reagan-Bush then Clinton, this one law enforcement effort has put more Black men in prison than were enslaved 100 years ago. Bill Clinton, who is affectionately called our "first Black president", should actually be labeled a sell out. His administration paved the way for draconian drug sentencing laws that decimated entire communities.
The War on Drugs was never really a war on drugs. Granted during the height of the crack epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s many people both Black and white felt the need to stamp down on skyrocketing violence. But the War of Drugs was a political tactic. It was used famously by politicians like Rudy "the Ghoul" Giuliani in his mayoral race of 1993 and by high profile police officials like Daryl Gates in Los Angeles. The War on Drugs was coded in such a way that it made white suburbanites feel safe to come into cities like Philadelphia or Detroit, because they knew cops wouldn't let roving Black and Latino thugs attack them on their way to the opera or a hockey game. At that time nobody cared that brown kids who could have been saved with sensible laws--yes Donna Shalala was right--were being ensnared and locked up for decades for low level drug possession. Around this same time cities like New York came up with programs like "Broken Windows" pioneered by commissioner Bill Bratton, which made it permissible for police to go into neighborhoods and harass/ arrest thousands of young Black men for no other reason except them being on the street.
The War on Drugs was never really about drugs. If it were there wouldn't be disparity in drug arrests. There have been study after study showing that Black people and white people use drugs at the same rate. Yet in some communities like Baltimore Black men are arrested for drug possession at a rate of 100 times higher than their white counterparts. When FOX commentators kept asking "Where are the fathers?" last Monday night I kept screaming "They're in prison you assholes!"
I experienced this siege first hand. When I first moved to New York in 1991 the city was a boiling caldera of drug violence. That year more people were murdered than any other single year in NYC history. For many residents violence from both neighbors and police were a daily occurrence. Something had to be done. So the great prosecutorial savior Rudy Giuliani went into action.
It was the summer of 1995 and I was paying a visit to a friend who lived in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan. A predominately Latino, poor community it sat at the foot of the George Washington Bridge. It was hot so we went outside to get a sweet cool treat from a Dominican Icy cart. We noticed a police paddy-wagon and curiosity made us stop and watch. The NYPD had set up a sting operation. White suburbanites would cross the bridge from New Jersey, buy drugs on the streets of Washington Heights then hop back on the bridge and return to New Jersey. But instead of arresting the white folk the cops would only grab the Black and Latino kids. We stood there for about 3 hours sipping on cocofressa and watching in horror as white men and women driving BMWs and Mercedes with Jersey plates pull off and return to their lives in Fort Lee or Paramus or Hacekensack and all points west, with no one ever knowing of their addiction or lawlessness. Yet these young men of color were scooped up and taken away, their lives destroyed in an instant. Just so some politician can claim he's tough on crime. That he rid the streets of thugs.
Last Monday night I thought about those young men I saw go into that police van twenty years ago. They put so many in there is seemed infinite. An unlucky TARDIS. One minute of bad judgement on 179th Street and Broadway, a lifetime in Ossining or Attica. I often wonder what happened to them? Nobody ever seems to know. They are the vanished. Just like Freddie Gray. Nobody seems to know anything. Freddie Gray went into one of those vans alive and came out so broken he died a week later. We don't know what happened to Freddie Gray but according to the news his mother was sorry, his father was absent, he had a switchblade and he was walking the streets of Baltimore looking at cops in their eyes. None of those things are capital crimes unless you are a Black person. So we sit and look at Baltimore burn. And wonder how we got here.